Humans are the only animals who cook and the only primates who share their food. As a consequence, food consumption has evolved to be a significant personal, social and cultural marker informing the lived experience of all people.
Reality TV cooking shows depict food delivery as a thing of love, comfort and reward, but the reality of domestic cooking can be something altogether different. Food can just as easily be used to withhold love as show it; to punish, not comfort; to manipulate, not reward.
Shared meals can be convivial events, bringing families and friends together, functioning as a compelling site for memory and recall so that those who went before remain at our tables long after they have gone. But for some, shared meals can be fraught or obligatory gatherings that bring little joy. And for others again, meal times can represent sites of oppressive systems of power within a household, which trigger anger and violence.
Food is life and through food life can be studied and understood. I wrote Grace’s Table with this in mind.
In my novel I wanted to offer an alternative view to what food and shared meals are typically thought to symbolize. I wanted the rituals, traditions and practices surrounding food sharing to become the primary language of the novel; a language through which the main character, Grace, could communicate her life. I also wanted to play around the edges of what it looks like when food is served with love, and what it looks like when it is not; food as protagonist and antagonist. Others have gone before me in this regard. Karen Blixen (Babette’s Feast), Margaret Atwood (The Edible Woman) and Kate Grenville (Lilian’s Story) have all subverted the expected food practices of women in their novels.
Food is often overlooked in fiction though, added occasionally as incidental realistic touches when it could be used to great effect to exploit or direct the actions or thoughts of characters. The reason for this could be explained in part by Virginia Woolf who famously stated in A Room of One’s Own: ‘…this is an important book, the critics assume, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with feelings of women in a drawing room.’ Ninety years on and there are unfortunately still critics who malign domestic themes and settings in literature, which might make some writers reluctant to address them in their work.
Wars are usually considered in global or regional terms; bitter and bloody campaigns fought within political and cultural contexts. And this is obviously true. But it is also worth considering that small intimate campaigns are fought in homes every day. Often these campaigns arise because of the differential power relations that exist between men and women, making the domestic space a rich hunting ground for writers.
In Grace’s Table the narrator’s long life is depicted throughout the story almost exclusively by the culinary acts she performs. Through food, Grace recalls events from her rebellious childhood in a small and bigoted rural community, she examines the emotional bullying of her belligerent husband, explores western culture’s expectations around grief, and questions her own shortcomings as a wife and mother. Much of this is achieved through the rituals and traditions of three generations of Grace’s family as they come together to cook and share a meal.
There is a political doctrine to many of Grace’s culinary activities, especially as her marriage disintegrates following a tragic event. And what was once the warm room of her home becomes the war room. And like any war, there are casualties – some characters are wounded physically, others emotionally.
My aim with this novel was to exploit the literary possibilities of domestic activities in order to explore the fragile tapestry of family relationships, especially those that allow for family violence and the inter-generational legacies that spring from it. I also wanted to give voice to grief, love, blame and forgiveness in new ways. Therefore, food didn’t just represent how it sustained this family biologically or occupied a woman temporally, it also brought personal, social and cultural context to the characters’ lives.
Like Grace, I learnt to cook by osmosis through watching my mother. I gradually built on my knowledge and skills over the years so that now my cooking is more intuitive than prescriptive: measurements guessed at; recipes manipulated or concocted from scratch to suit mood or taste. And yet I too don’t always cook with love and sometimes, also like Grace, I feel like my cooking carries a:
…malevolent power. It provided an avenue through which perceived wrongs could be redeemed – the worst, fatty cut to the belligerent; the yolk with a blood spot to the cruel; a disliked dish to the ungrateful. (Grace’s Table, p 57)
Except I doubt anyone in my family even noticed that they were being punished.
But there is power in cooking and for some women, across all societies and cultures, where and how that food is prepared and served is often one of the few realms where they can assert that power.
The identities of women have been forged for millennia through their culinary acts. And while much of the sifting and slicing, basting and baking in the stories we read might be there to provide a framework of realism, it might also be there to serve another purpose: to show us how the domestic lives of women intersect with societal, cultural and political issues of our time. So it is worth looking closely at what is on the plates of the characters in the novels we read and decide whether it is gift or punishment being served.
(c) Sally Piper
About Grace’s Table:
Grace has not had twelve people at her table for a long time. Hers isn’t the kind of family who share regular Sunday meals. But it isn’t every day you turn seventy.
As Grace prepares the feast, she reflects on her life, her marriage and her friendships. When the three generations come together, simmering tensions from the past threaten to boil over. The one thing that no one can talk about is the one thing that no one can forget.
‘A wise and tender novel about food, friendship and marriage’ Kristina Olsson, author of Boy, Lost and Shell
‘An emotional and uplifting look at how food brings families together’ Eva Woods, author of How to be Happy
‘I loved Grace’s Table. Sally Piper makes the ordinary extraordinary in her finely observed and profoundly moving snapshot of a woman preparing to feed her family. The events of the day, and Grace’s flashbacks to both happier and sadder times, show how the choosing, cooking and serving of food can say so much about the dynamics of our relationships. Love, comfort, power, control and secrecy are all bound up in the simple acts that Grace – and all of us – carry out unquestioningly. It’s a delight to discover, in Grace’s Table, a story that’s so simple yet so deeply thought-provoking’ Sarah Haywood, author of The Cactus
Order your copy online here.